Want to Change Your Life? Focus on Your Behavior
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how we can make big changes in our lives.
In researching and writing my book last year, I reflected a lot on my own life struggles—with heartbreak, with racist bullying in childhood, with my parents’ high expectations of me, with cultural confusion, and with struggling against my own imperfections. I also tuned in to the struggles of those around me—people in my audiences, people I coach, friends, family, and team members.
What I noticed consistently was this: many of us want to live better and make big changes in our lives, but few of us know how to make it happen. Especially significant, lasting change. We yearn for things to be different, but we don’t know how to get there.
Unfortunately, the advice we typically receive sounds like “be yourself” or “follow your dreams.” But what does that mean? What does it look like to live that way? What we really need is a practical way to move forward into the lives we want.
Understand Your Behavior, Change Your Life
In response to this need, I developed a framework (which is featured in my book) called the Seven Behavioral Dimensions. These dimensions reflect a range of behavioral areas in which we make decisions, both consciously and unconsciously, about how to act at any given time. All day long, we’re knowingly and unknowingly making decisions about how to behave in the following areas:
- How we express our emotions: The extent to which we are restrained or expressive in how we express ourselves across a range of emotions, including anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness, surprise, contempt, shame, and pride.
- How we communicate non-verbally: How we behave in areas like gesturing, touching, posture, facial expressions, eye contact, and what I call “eye talk” (blinking, squinting, widening, closing, rolling, “smizing,” glaring, etc.).
- The words we use when we speak: Whether we speak formally or informally; what vocabulary we choose (e.g., using simple words as opposed to bigger, fancier, less commonly used words); whether we use slang, swear words, or offensive language.
- How we speak: The pitch, volume, pace, accent, and intonation of our voice.
- Our appearance: How we choose to physically present ourselves, including our clothing, shoes, makeup, hairstyle, weight, cosmetic procedures/plastic surgery, jewelry, piercings, tattoos, accessories, style, brand affiliation, and the colors we wear.
- The content we share: What we put forward about our values, beliefs, thoughts, ideas, opinions, dissenting views, stories, experiences, and cultural differences—which, broadly defined, includes our nationality, race/ethnoculture, religion/faith, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, disability, class/socioeconomic status, and family status.
- Our actions: The countless decisions we make every day about how we act, including the choices we make about how to treat people, whom to speak to, whom to avoid, how we self-promote, whose interests we prioritize, how and whom we defer to, how and whom we dominate, how we listen, what we say yes/no/maybe to, and how and where we draw our boundaries.
Understanding how you currently behave in each of these areas is an important foundation for understanding what changes you need to make in your life to get you closer to where you want to be.
Small Behavioral “Nudges” Will Change How You Act and How You Think
In her book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, Amy Cuddy describes the act of making small behavioral changes as “self-nudging.” She explains that self-nudges are minimal modifications to your behavior, which are intended to produce small psychological and behavioral improvements in the moment (for example, sitting more upright or placing your hands on your hips when speaking—behavior that will lead you to feel more confident—rather than starting with full-blown power posing). They are tiny tweaks with the potential to lead to big changes over time.
Cuddy explains that self-nudges are very powerful because they’re small and require minimal psychological and physical commitment, and the real magic is that while we think our attitudes will change our behavior, the reverse is true as well—attitudes follow from behaviors. So change your behavior, and it will ultimately change your thoughts and mindset.
Break Down Your Behavior
Looking closely at how you are showing up in each of the Seven Behavioral Dimensions will help you understand the conscious and unconscious decisions you’ve been making about how you show up. It will also help you connect the dots on where you should be “self-nudging” in order to get closer to being in alignment with how you want to behave.
Think about what you want to have happen in your life and about what’s most important to you. Do you want to attract friends you can be yourself around? Do you want to get your dream job? Do you want to live more authentically? Do you want to better connect with your children? Do you want to live a values-based life?
When you know what kind of change you want to make, then you can use the Seven Behavioral Dimensions to build yourself a practical plan for change.
Start by writing down the change you most want to see in your life. Now you can get into the nitty gritty of how you’re showing up in each of the dimensions. You’ll need one blank piece of paper for each of the seven dimensions. Write each dimension at the top of a new page—then reflect on three questions for each one:
- How am I currently showing up in this dimension?
- What outcome is my behavior having, and how is it impacting the area I’ve identified for change?
- How do I want to show up in this area, and what small changes do I need to make to get there? In other words—what small action can I take today that will make me feel closer to this goal?
For example, if your goal is to better connect with your children, in the “my actions” dimension you might note that you currently spend little time exploring your kids’ passions. Then you might decide to consciously start engaging in activities with your kids that enable you to learn more about their needs and wants. For example, You might brainstorm with them about how they want to spend the weekend instead of fitting them into your pre-determined schedule.
If your goal is to live a life that reflects your value of kindness, you might note that when you’re stressed at work, you’re letting it affect how you speak to your colleagues (you tend to be very direct when stressed). In the “words you use” dimension, you might decide to invoke a deliberate pause before speaking to be more mindful of the impact of your words.
The key is to start small. Choose a manageable number of incremental changes that will give you small wins and help get you comfortable with living differently. Over time, you can move on to more challenging behavioral changes.
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I’d love to hear about how you most want your life to change, and the behavioral tweaks you’ll make to get there. Leave a comment below and let me know how the Seven Behavioral Dimensions work for you!